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The Incident that Launched Frontera Fund

On the evening of October 18, 2007, armed deputies from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s feared “Selective Enforcement Unit” handcuffed and arrested Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin. The two Village Voice Media executives were forcibly removed from their Phoenix-area homes and shoved into unmarked SUVs with dark tinted windows and Mexican license plates. They were later booked into separate jails managed by Arpaio.

The arrests had been instigated and carried out by Arpaio. The man who dubbed himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” had long been outraged by Phoenix New Times stories that exposed his misdeeds. The newspaper reported on Arpaio’s patriarchal role in fostering anti-Mexican fear-mongering and political posturing in Arizona. In fact, when mainstream newspapers routinely dismissed Arpaio as just another offbeat but benign Arizona character, Phoenix New Times reported on financial irregularities and rampant mismanagement in the sheriff’s office; on retaliatory abuses of power against the sheriff’s critics; on substandard health conditions in Arpaio’s jails; on mistreatment and deaths of jail inmates; on Arpaio’s systematic persecution, racial profiling and unconstitutional detention of Latinos.

Lacey and Larkin were ostensibly arrested for penning a cover story in Phoenix New Times that revealed how, in a breathtaking assault to the Constitution, Arpaio’s allies at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office had issued grand jury subpoenas seeking details about the newspaper’s writers, editors and readers, including readers’ personal browsing histories and IP addresses. Instead of caving to the subpoenas, Lacey and Larkin wrote about it. When jail inmates asked Lacey why he was arrested, he answered: “Writing.”

After a loud national outcry, Lacey and Larkin were released from jail in less than 24 hours. All charges were dropped.

The illegal detention of Lacey and Larkin set off a prolonged court battle centered on First Amendment rights and abuse of power. In 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote: “It is hard to conceive of a more direct assault on the First Amendment than public officials ordering the immediate arrests of their critics. And, in this case, there was nothing subtle about their efforts to stifle the New Times.”

The Ninth Circuit noted that the grand jury subpoenas served on Lacey and Larkin had actually been invalid because the prosecutor had sidestepped required legal procedures. The court made clear that Lacey and Larkin were arrested without probable cause.

The appellate court’s decision paved the way for a  $3.7 million settlement paid to Lacey and Larkin by Maricopa County in 2013.

Lacey and Larkin earmarked the settlement money for the Frontera Fund, a unique initiative intended largely to benefit the Hispanic community that has borne the brunt of the racial animus and civil rights abuses in Arizona.

“I grew up in Arizona,” said Larkin. “I was taught from an early age that one must give a hand to those of us less fortunate in life.

“I cannot think of a more deserving group than those Mexican immigrants who brave unimaginable peril in the desert to travel to Arizona for work and economic opportunity.”

Even as politicians on both sides of the aisle began campaigning for the 2014 midterm elections by imitating Arpaio’s anti-Hispanic political posturing, Lacey and Larkin quietly began distributing Frontera Fund dollars to benefit worthy nonprofit groups that advocate for Hispanic civil rights and causes.

“Sheriff Joe Arpaio demonized and detained Mexican migrants as well as anyone with brown skin, including American citizens,” observed Lacey. “He helped foster a fear which culminated in the 2014 election with one congressional candidate’s advertising showing ISIS terrorists crossing from Mexico into Arizona.

“I think the people of Arizona are better than this. Of course Jim and I stand with migrants. We are all migrants.”